In his weekly series, staff writer Robert Samuels explores the city, street corner by street corner.
Closing time was coming soon. Willie Craft Sr. and son could hardly be more thankful.
Times haven’t always been easy at their family dry cleaners, the anchor of a strip mall off Minnesota and Nannie Helen Burroughs avenues in Northeast Washington. But the robberies had ebbed, the cash machine was starting to flow again and that rackety construction project had finally resulted in a rejuvenated road to potential prosperity.
“Nearly killed my business,’’ Willie Craft Sr., 82, said of the repaving of Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, which had blocked the entrance to the dry cleaners. “But the old customers are coming back, and now we can get new ones, too.”
In Deanwood, the road project carries the hope captured in the mural across the street, depicting Marcus Garvey and other civil rights heroes who championed a spirit of self-determination.
But what does 21st-century redevelopment mean for a stubborn neighborhood standby, one that thrived in more prosperous times and endured the urban decline that followed?
Craft has owned this lot so long, 38 years, that the name of the dry cleaners even outlasted the name of the street it’s on.
“Dean Ave. Cleaners” reads the sign that Craft painted with pride in 1974. Decades ago, the street, actually spelled Deane Avenue, was renamed to honor Burroughs, a renowned educator in the early years of the 20th century.
Craft grew up on a farm in southern Virginia before moving to the District in the 1960s. At first, he made his living here as a brick layer and then started to work at a cowboy-themed dry cleaners in the shopping center. When the owners decided to put the center up for sale, Craft mortgaged his house and bought the whole thing.
Craft’s son, Willie Craft Jr., 60, now manages the business. Craft Sr.’s daughter, Crystal Craft, opened a flower shop next door last year.
A storefront church moved out because it couldn’t make the rent, but a day care will soon fill the spot.
Behind the white bars on the windows, the cleaners looks as old-fashioned as 1974: a 6,000 square foot, wood-panelled cathedral of clothing on conveyer belts. The items are washed in the Patriot System 550 and then pressed, starched and wrapped in crinkly clear plastic, holding together the fabric of a community.
Last week, a woman came in and said she finally had the money to pick up the sweaters she dropped off almost a year ago. Things must be getting better. Without conducting a survey, Willie Craft the younger can describe the type who come here: The racks are filled with Metro uniforms, security guard uniforms, Postal Service uniforms and church suits. The customers deserve good service, Craft Jr. said, because they know what good service looks like.
“I will never go anywhere else,’’ said James Jewett, a 71-year-old letter carrier who was picking up his uniform. “You’ve got to support the entrepreneurs because we don’t have a lot like them around here anymore. You just don’t see a lot of black-owned businesses. And do you see what’s going on outside? In two years, this place will be like Georgetown: Nice. What you saw west of the [Anacostia] river is coming east of the river.”
Decades ago, there were minority-owned liquor stores and shoe stores along this strip — even other dry cleaners. Now Deane — ummm, Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue — is lined with gas stations and fast-food restaurants. The Crafts’ shopping center is the only small, African American-owned business left on the block.
“This family hasn’t sold out,’’ Jewett said.
“That’s right,” Willie Craft Jr. said. His father added: “We’ve been here for more than 40 years, trying to make a living and being a service community. We rely on word of mouth. We’re going to stay as long as our customers want us here.”
“This is family,’’ the son continued. “That’s why we are still here. This is our family business. And it will probably keep going as a dry cleaners forever. So hopefully, the next generation will want to keep it that way.”
The Crafts delight on being old-school. There’s no music playing overhead. No Facebook pages or signs to review them on Yelp. The fact that they are still here, they think, says enough.
As the 7 p.m. closing time neared, their lone non-family employee separated the final batches of clothes to be washed. She sighed. The Crafts did, too. “We’ve been going since 10 a.m., and everyone’s tired,” the younger Craft said. “The holidays are picking up. I’m ready to go home.”
It’s always a relief to close up shop. But it was even nicer to wake up with enough business to last another day.
For more in this series, go to postlocal.com. What’s your favorite intersection? E-mail Robert at email@example.com.